Could Higher Ed Usher in a New Economy?

My research interests have turned toward the relationship between higher education and neoliberal economics. I’m particularly interested in the ways neoliberal ideologies affect higher ed marketing, student wellness, and academic labor practices. Put quickly, neoliberalism is a collection of economic and social policies that favor transferring economic control to private entities and away from public ones. It’s the theory behind corporate-owned jails, charter schools, and for-profit colleges. At its core, neoliberalism contends that humans are competitive animals first and foremost, and that any strictures on that competitiveness — like, say, government regulations that come with public funding — weakens the effectiveness of markets. The theory came to being in the late 19th century but it took a global foothold in the 1980s and 90s.

Neoliberalism has essentially been naturalized — that is, we barely notice it as an ideology. One effect of its policies is to have turned individual wants and needs into the primary drivers of economic action, thus squashing the notion of community that exists outside the valuation process. I would argue that the emphases on competition, privatization, and self advancement drive our students — regardless of economic background — to anxiety, loneliness, and depression, all of which reduce their learning.

I think our students deserve a new conversation about economics and education, one that identifies cornerstone public goods and services and consider how best to support them. We need to help students redefine and sharpen the distinction between consumer goods and public goods, between products and services that are valued and bought for personal use and those that are valued and financed for public benefit. We need a deeper and more nuanced national conversation about what these public goods should be and of how they benefit us all even when we don’t take direct advantage of them.

We certainly can’t go back to the demand-side economics that drove our post-war boom — the manufacturing sector is smaller now, and our economy relies on sectors that can be narrow and fleeting. But we can’t stay where we are, not without tearing asunder our social and political systems. Higher ed can start a conversation about a potential third way, a conversation I want to begin by first examining the effects of neoliberalism on college curricula and business practices.


On-Line Education and Residential Colleges

I am certainly not the only person writing about Mark Edmundson‘s op-ed in the New York Times: “The Trouble with Online Education.” (Indeed, here’s Cathy Davidson’s response.) Edmundson’s piece will rightly get a lot of attention for what it says about the shortcomings of online college courses, particularly MOOCs, but I’m much more interested in what he writes about successfully engaging students in our regular classrooms. I read Edmundson’s piece in the context of this analysis of on-line education by Richard Perez-Pena in the New York Times, published just a day earlier. Perez-Pena offers this point about the types of colleges that are near and dear to me:

Residential colleges already attract far less than half of the higher education market. Most enrollment and nearly all growth in higher education is in less costly options that let students balance classes with work and family: commuter colleges, night schools, online universities.

Most experts say there will always be students who want to live on campus, interacting with professors and fellow students, particularly at prestigious universities. But as a share of the college market, that is likely to be a shrinking niche.

One of his sources suggests that of this particular niche, only the elite schools with large endowments will survive. Other residential colleges — those with small endowments and who rely almost solely on tuition dollars for operation costs — are, according to the author, likely to go away.

Two thing make me question Perez-Pena’s analysis. The second is Edmundson’s argument about the value of face-to-face teaching, and I’ll get to that in a moment. The first is my different understanding of who goes to college in the first place. In terms of overall market niche, it’s probably true that the non-elite residential college niche is shrinking — but it may not be true in terms of real numbers. As more people go to college generally, enrollments are likely to grow at non-traditional institutions. A larger college-going population naturally includes a higher number of non-traditional students — parents, vets, working class folks, etc. These people will — indeed are — flooding the college market, but they were never looking at residential colleges in the first place.

Residential colleges are the engines for credentializing and networking the middle and upper classes. I suppose they educate those classes, too, but right now their biggest value lies in how well they get students into post-degree positions. 30,000-student MOOCs aren’t going to appeal to kids (and parents) looking for schools that will give them access to the cultural cache and connections that residential colleges offer. We can talk all we want about folks demanding more economical education alternatives, but when faced with the option of giving a child an education that happens in the isolation of on-line courses or one that provides the extras of social networks, internships, and general people skills, most middle and upper class folks will choose the latter. And if the kids aren’t too bright or ambitious, those lower-tier residential schools that provide good amenities and decent contacts are going to look quite good, regardless of the bill.

My point here is that Perez-Pena is assuming way too rational and equal a market for higher education. I suggest we’re a long way off from middle- and upper-class parents being comfortable planting their kids in front of the home computer instead of dropping them off at a nicely furnished residence hall. So to the extent that the on-line market is booming, I think it’s more of a threat to mid-level public universities, who already find their funding lacking. Folks who are planning to attend North-by-Northwest State University at Middle City might be more enticed to take on-line courses than those heading to Old Dead Rich Guy College. I’m not taking a swipe at the quality of public universities. I’m just making a point about the allure of cultural capital to the moneyed and even not-quite-so-moneyed classes.

My second point is far less cynical and draws directly from Edmundson’s argument about the value of classroom interaction. Fairly or not, Edmundson characterizes on-line education as sterile and lonely, even in small-ish courses where the instructor and students interact regularly through e-mail, messaging, Skype, etc. The time in-class is a happening, an event; it occurs only once and has a vitality to it that on-line technologies simply can’t recreate. Here’s Edmundson’s metaphor and explanation:

Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition. There is the basic melody that you work with. It is defined by the syllabus. But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background.

… I think that the best … lecturers are highly adept at reading their audiences. They use practical means to do this — tests and quizzes, papers and evaluations. But they also deploy something tantamount to artistry. They are superb at sensing the mood of a room. They have a sort of pedagogical sixth sense. They feel it when the class is engaged and when it slips off. And they do something about it.

Some might criticize Edmundson for fetishizing the classroom and romanticizing the instructor. I’d suggest instead that he’s prioritizing the social aspect of education and crediting the instructor for skills that go beyond simple content knowledge.

It’s these skills — the abilities to sense the mood of the room, to alter one’s plan in midstream, to respond to spoken and physical feedback — that I’m becoming more and more interested in, just as so much of my field seems to be moving further away from any concern about them at all. Good teaching isn’t just about covering the material or completing the lesson. It’s about creating moments that stick in everyone’s mind — instructor and students.

Like Edmundson, I don’t think on-line education can deliver these moments. Even in real-time settings, the screens and interfaces simply dehumanize the effort. Students for whom education is more than just content mastery — i.e., those who appreciate the process of education — are going to continue to be drawn to colleges that offer the best opportunities for memorable moments.

Writing this post reminds me that I have to return to the concept of classroom dynamism . . .


When the Students Say I’m Boring

I’m back from vacation and starting to focus my attention on my department’s August orientation and retreat. Doing so brings me again to the subject of course evaluations. I’m fixated on evals because they provide the only regular feedback instructors receive about their teaching, which is ironic given that we’re primarily a teaching institution. (My experiences at several liberal arts colleges has all been the same, frankly: good teaching is just assumed to be happening and so very little support is given to faculty development and mentoring.) Because evals are often the only form of feedback, they take on rather mythic proportions in our professional lives. I want to knock that proportion down a bit by adding other forms of feedback (like peer observations and teaching demos), but I also want to help instructors make the best use of the eval data.

Today I’m thinking about what the written comments can tell an instructor about how students are experiencing his or her courses. In my previous post, I wrote about the benefit of organizing the written comments to look for trends. Today, I want to think about what to do in light of one very common trend across the comments, regardless of course: students calling the course or instructor boring. Now really, this is two different things, and noting that difference is very, very important. Students can be more discerning than we sometimes give them credit for. They can separate the purpose and content of a course from its delivery. Of course, they can sometimes do that too well, creating too great a separation between material and form. Many times, however, they make the distinction as a way of either buoying or sinking an instructor.

For example, I see a lot of comments from our first-year writing courses that say, in effect, “Mr. So-and-So tried to engage us in class, but it’s hard to make English writing interesting.” Likewise, I see many comments that say, “The papers were interesting but Ms. Whatsit mostly wasted class time.” The first comment takes up Mr. So-and-So’s case, arguing that, try as he might, he just couldn’t escape the terrible, no-good purpose and content of the course. The second comment takes a stab at Ms. Whatsit, contending that, if not for her, the course material would have shined brighter.

It’s certainly easy — and sometimes correct — to dismiss students’ complaints about boredom as symptomatic of their small attention spans, general disinterest in learning, Facebook addictions, etc. And it’s equally easy — and equally correct on occasion — to think that our colleagues who are never called boring simply spend their class time entertaining their students, playing to lowest common interest. But let’s give the students and our exciting colleagues the benefit of the doubt for a moment. Imagine that what the students are saying when they offer the “boring” critique is that their experiences in the course didn’t jibe with their expectations. And imagine now that such expectations are indeed the responsibility of both parties — students and instructors. What I’m getting at here is that boredom is itself an expectation and a habit of mind. We expect the waiting room at a doctor’s office to be boring, so we plan against it. Likewise, when I’m confronted by work that is itself either well below or well above my ability level, I’m bored in a different way. I have a responsibility to work against my boredom in ways that speak to my interests. People I’m trying to work with have the responsibility to present my tasks and my roles in ways that make sense to me and that take advantage of my talents and interests.

I think the “boring” critique is a sign of a breakdown in communication between the instructor and the students. It’s true that not every course will be of major interest to every student, but perhaps student boredom can be reduced — or repurposed — through meta-conversations about the purpose of the course, its assignments, and its activities. Students disconnect from a class when they feel no ownership of it, when they feel like their investment in the course will provide little return, and when they can’t see the connection among course discussions, in-class activities, and major assignments. I’ve found that stopping a class session and engaging students in a critique of the discussion/activity is a productive way to get their attention and energy refocused on the task at hand. If conversation drops off, for example, I’ll stop the discussion and ask students to write for a few moments about why the discussion seems to be going so slow. Often I get what I expect: students haven’t done the reading or they didn’t understand something, etc. But sometimes I get interesting notes: like when students have lost track of why we’re discussing something in the first place, or when they explain that they think they have a good understanding of the topic and want to move on (at which point I can give them a quick activity to demonstrate that understanding and then, indeed, move on).

I’d say that the great majority of my teaching is rooted in meta-cognitive awareness. I try to explain to my students frequently what’s going on and — most importantly — why it’s going on in the form that it is. If it seems like an unproductive form, I make changes on the fly. The advice I’d give faculty who see the boring critique trend across their evaluation comments is to engage in meta-discussion more with their students. It gives instructors a really good sense of how students are experience the course on a day-to-day basis, and it provides opportunities to debunk wrong ideas about the course or to explain a key facet in more detail.

How we teach is as much what our courses are about as what we’re covering. No instructor or course is inherently boring, as “boring” is simply a perception rooted in a social context. Alter that context and we can alter the perception.

I’ll try to work on some more specific teaching strategies in another post.

Course Evaluations: Words and Numbers

I just came across a very good review of the literature (pdf) on on-line course evaluations by Jessica Wode and Jonathan Keiser at Columbia College Chicago. Here is one pertinent set of conclusions:

Online vs. paper course evaluations

• The one consistent disadvantage to online course evaluations is their low response  rate; using reminder e-mails from instructors and messages posted on online class discussions can significantly increase response rates.

• Evaluation scores do not change when evaluations are completed online rather than on paper.

• Students leave more (and often more useful) comments on online evaluations compared to paper evaluations.

• Students, faculty, and staff generally view online evaluations more positively than paper evaluations.

The first and third conclusions really interest me for what they mean for faculty development. If response rates prove to be too low, then the exercise is meaningless — and the data ripe for being misused (e.g., discounting an instructor’s abilities in the classroom because the 2 students out of 20 who completed the survey didn’t like the course). The finding about comments is particularly surprising but also very much welcomed. Comments from students provide context for the quantitative data and often provide far more information about how students perceived the course than the numbers do.

I also came across this piece (pdf) from Stanford University’s Center for Teaching and Learning (1997). It offers some very good advice about how to interpret and ultimately use teaching evaluations to improve one’s courses and student learning. I was particularly interested in the section on interpreting students’ comments. Learning to interpret the comments productively is an important skill to master, but it’s certainly not easy, particularly because the comments — more so than the numbers — have the power to elate or deflate us. The comments just seem so personal, and more and more they can read like the worst of some message board flame war between Batman fans and Avengers fanatics.

At my institutions, instructors do not receive the “raw data” from their evaluations. Instead, they receive a document that has all the numeric responses tallied and averaged and all the comments listed on a separate page. The list of comments may be juxtaposed to the numbers, but that proximity actually confuses the matter. In the raw form, instructors would see each individual student evaluation — that student’s numbers and comments. In that form, the instructor can place the comments in relation to specific numbers. Here, an instructor can use the numerical data to get a sense of that student’s experience and then interpret the comments in light of that sense. For example, a student may have rated the course materials low but gave the instructor herself high marks for enthusiasm, willingness to help, preparedness, etc. The comments on that particular evaluation might make this separation between content and delivery clear. But in the aggregated form, the instructor won’t be able to see it.

I write all this because I’m taken by the recommendation in the CTL piece to create an interpretive framework for the student comments. Without a framework, comments can look random or scattered. (Afshan Jafar over at IHE has a good post on this phenomenon.) The CTL recommends either categorizing the comments under general headings (positive or negative, e.g.), or better yet, creating a graph that plots the comments according to characteristics of effective teaching (organization, pacing, explanation, rigor, etc.). Categorizing, characterizing, and generally organizing the comments seems like a good way to help instructors gain some authority over the text. It should also help minimize the effects that the few very bad or wildly positive comments have on our perceptions of how a course went.

So I’m lobbying my institutional data colleagues for access to the raw data and I plan to put together some resources on working with evals for my department.

In my next post, I want to think about the relationship between course evaluations and something I’ve come to call “classroom dynamism,” which sounds purposefully close to “strategic dynamism.” More soon.

UVa, Students, and Zombie Consumers

According to this piece from Inside Higher Ed, the UVa board passed around the earlier IHE article I blogged about a few weeks back: the one on Wesleyan University’s move away from need-blind financial aid. By itself, that article doesn’t say much about the current state of things at UVa, but in the context of the other articles shared by the board, it helps bring into focus just what the BoV seems to be aiming for. In short, these things include:

  • A move into large-scale on-line education
  • An increase in the number of students able to pay the entire tuition without loans or grants (we can also call this a decrease in the discount rate)
  • Greater emphasis on majors related to business and health care
  • Decreased support for the humanities

I’m no fan of any of these ideas, but I’ll let other, more articulate folks explain the dangers inherent in each. I will say that I’ve seen at least one of these ideas at work in every school I’ve taught at, and in each case the blowback and complications were more difficult than anyone in charge seemed to have predicted.

What concerns me most about the events at UVa is what they say about the evolving relationship between students and institutions of higher education. I’m no romantic about higher ed. For example, I’m not all that bothered by the student-as-customer metaphor. They are, to a certain extent, customers, as in: they are paying for something (an education) that exists in a marketplace defined by competition. The problem with this metaphor is in the customer part. Our economy and culture have made “customer” synonymous with “consumer.” A customer is an actual human being who makes (somewhat) rational choices about what to purchase and who establishes some kind of mutually fulfilling relationship with the retailer. A consumer is a statistic, a data point for economists. When we conflate the terms, we zombie-fy customers, imagining them as mindless eaters looking only for the nearest food source.

Less negatively: customers fuel local economies; consumers present national trends.

The actions — or at least the reading list — of the UVa BoV seem to suggest that they see students as a mass of consumers rather than a community of customers. They see the economy of higher education from a neo-liberal, globalized perspective rather than from a local one. They see the university as a feeding stop for the horde rather than a sanctuary for reflection.

UVa is not alone. What does the rise of for-profit, on-line universities tell us if not that catering to the roaming horde is good for bottom lines? What does the increasing demand on public institutions to respond to the “needs of businesses” tell us if not that beneficiaries of horde-like consuming have gained a lot of power in our society?

What’s evolving in the student-institution relationship isn’t the identification of students as customers. It’s the dehumanizing of students into consumers. Large-scale on-line initiatives and job-training curricular look on the surface to respond to the needs and desires of students. But just a bit deeper we see how such efforts are also attempts to streamline the process by which hordes of people can be sorted, evaluated, and placed — all while paying high fees for the privilege.